Words Words Words
I've decided that it's really hard to teach lyric-writing. However, it's also really fun, so when I was asked to run a workshop about lyrics as a warm-up event for new Devon literary festival, ChagWord, I jumped at the chance.
I could talk about lyrics all day; clever rhymes, pure rhymes, lyric structure, simile, metaphor, meaning, rhythm, etc., but getting this across in a fun workshop for 10 - 18 year olds wanting something to do during half term is a different task altogether.
The thing is, there are just too many ways to write lyrics and I have no one process when writing them myself. Sometimes, a lyrical hook comes to me and I'm away, other times I have a melody in my head and I fit the lyrics to that musical phrase. Sometimes I've a rhythm or groove to work the words around, and other times I'll know that the song has to achieve something, in terms of story-telling, so I think of the story before writing the song. I knew all of these approaches would either work for or alienate the young people in the workshop, so tailoring the workshop around that would be paramount.
This was the first time I'd 'taught' lyric-writing to anyone, and knowing the majority of the participants from our Summer School programme meant that the young people involved were on my side and used to working with each other and me - a huge bonus all round.
We started by thinking about word association and wrote a song about... sausages. We recorded their favourite 'sausage' related words in to the app Songify on my iPad. Songify sets words to music, auto-tuning the speech patterns and attempting to make some sort of melody out of your words. It's very cheesy and cheap, but I knew it’d appeal to my participants, and our track Sausages was a real 'hit'. Hear a snippet below...
Building on the 'sausage' theme, in groups they created a rap about Breakfast (which was rhymed with 'b-bestest') and a re-write of Queen’s Flash, 'Ohhhhhh, he's a greasy one'. Task one was complete: make 'em laugh.
But now on to the serious stuff, not that sausage based songs aren't art...
I was glad they had chosen rap and an existing melody to present their first lyrics to the group - it gave a good indication of lyrical approach. Had they written two poems about sausages, it would have been a different story, but these guys wanted to perform their songs, set them to music and make them come to life, so I looked to the 4-Chord Song. If you haven't seen the Axis of Awesome's YouTube hit about how most pop songs fit to the same 4-chord structure, then watch below. We also opened one of our concerts, The Starling Songbook, with it. Part of it makes me cry for pointing out the unoriginality of music, but the other part thanks it for helping me teach lyrics!
Thinking up stories about themselves, things they knew and/or shared, in three groups the participants wrote lyrics around the 4-chord structure. We had a song about going to the dentist, aptly called Fat Lips, a number about friendship titled F is For and piece about a Dirpy Capybara...
All of them were very enlightening. I loved Fat Lips because it followed the 'show don't tell' rule of narrative, building you up to the song being about a dentist:
I'm sitting in the chair and he's over there
I wish I could leave and run away.
What's stopping me? I know I've got to stay...
He's my dentist and he's gonna give me fat lips!
Fat lips, numb lips, fat lips, numb lips, fat lip, numb lips!
He's my dentist and he's gonna give me fat lips,
Gonna gonna gonna gonna gonna gonna give me fat lips!
F is For... was clever because the girls writing it built their first verse around a mnemonic:
F is for forever
Really there’s no on better
In my mind I see you
Every morning, every night
No one compares to you
Do you understand
Some people won't get us
The Derpy Capybara used some very clever rhymes and lines with my favourites being:
From behind you looked so adorable
Turned your face and I couldn't look at all
Your eyes like my life go in different directions
By now it was time to work on their own. Each participant picked 15 random words out of a hat and had to write a story using these words. It didn't need to rhyme and the story wasn't necessarily the verse of a song, it was just a starting point. Some had to try and fit words like 'exquisite' and 'banana' into their stories, and I was impressed with one girl inventing a character out of two of her words, 'Maid Marigold' who became the protagonist of her tale.
From this, we took favourite lines, themes or ideas from these 'random word stories' to make a verse of a song. The results were some of my favourite lines, particularly this:
We will always go together
Like thunder and lighting in stormy weather
Like a knife and fork, salt and pepper
Fish & chips and TV & dinner
We are Tea & Coffee, Coffee & Tea
I love you and you love me.
The final exercise saw the participants back in groups and writing a song around a 'hook' I gave them. Good songs always have some sort of refrain which gets in your head as an 'ear worm' and passes the old grey whistle test. I was impressed that we got three such songs out of the group.
The boys, who had come armed with a guitar and drum, chose 'Upside down' from the list, resulting in a rock song about their Upside Down Girl. Another group wrote a 12-bar blues using the phrase 'At the end of the road', and listening to rules of singing the blues that I learned from Starling Express all those years ago...
Our youngest group wrote a lovely song, which I set to music for them, with 'I Have a Dream' as their draw. Asking the rest of the participants what their ultimate dream in life was, they pieced together a song Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been proud of.
Returning to my opening point, it's really hard to teach lyric-writing. It's also very hard to write lyrics. It seems to be a knack that some people have, and while you can guide someone towards writing words, you can't tell them what to write, nor is there a lyric-writing formula you can teach. It makes me appreciate even more why there are so few songwriting / lyric writing classes out there, but rather surgeries offering advice. However, I'm confident this workshop sparked an interest in the art of lyric-writing and I hope it's the first of many lyrics based sessions to come.
Emily and I are very proud of the youth community we've built up in Devon and it's been fantastic to have Starling Arts' name associated with ChagWord.
ChagWord takes place from March 15 - 17th 2013. For more information see www.chagword.com